Sixty-year-old Hussain Ansari, who has been an autorickshaw driver for the past 40 years in Junagadh city, feels that if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has hopes of winning from the Junagadh Lok Sabha constituency, it needs to do much more than simply work up sentiments by describing the territory as one that had been on the verge of joining Pakistan during independence.
“All the talk about Junagadh being a territory that could have gone with Pakistan is just meant to beguile voters. Years ago, people of Junagadh decided to remain with India. Why talk about the Nawab’s role (he had decided to choose to go with Pakistan, though the majority of the population was Hindus) and alienate the people,” asked Ansari while referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s April 10 speech. “Today Junagadh Municipal Corporation in under the BJP and look how poorly they have performed since 2014. Take a ride on the station road and tell me if you see any new developments. The Pakistan issue has never worked and it will not work this time too.”
Modi, while launching the BJP’s Lok Sabha election campaign from Junagadh on April 10, recounted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s contribution in ensuring that Junagadh remained with India, and asked “Can anyone in Junagadh forget Sardar Patel?… If Sardar was not around where would Junagadh be?” The audience replied in unison, “In Pakistan”.
Ansari is not the only voice that speaks of dissatisfaction in the constituency where Congress performed impressively in the 2017 state Assembly polls, winning all six seats. However, Kanu Solanki, a driver says it will be a close fight between the two major parties.
“Both Congress and BJP do not keep their promises,” he said. Speaking about the lack of job opportunities, he said, “There are only a few industries scattered in the region and the only earnings we get is due to Girnar where festivities are held during Shivratri and Parikrama.” Solanki said the widespread unemployment among youth of the region had led to them drive autorickshaws for tourists in order to make ends meet.
The constituency comprises the Gir forest, home of the Asiatic lion, a major tourist attraction, and is famous for the Kesar mangoes grown in Talala region.
Mahesh Patel, a mango farmer in Talala who voted for the Congress party in 2017 says no matter who they vote for, the person ignores the people’s issues. “What is the difference between BJP and Congress these days?,” he asked. “We voted for the Congress two years ago as we were tired of the empty promises made by the local BJP leaders, including about farm produce. Today those in the Congress are moving to BJP. We vote for a particular candidate. and then a few months later we see him moving around in an Audi (luxury car), while the issues remain unaddressed.”
However, Devraj Barda, a farmer from Mangrol, feels that the Congress would have an upper hand. “I feel Congress will have a slight edge. Not because we believe in what the Congress is promising, but more so because we have seen that the BJP is yet to deliver on many things that they promised,” he said. “This year I lost my crop due to poor monsoon, and I am yet to get adequate compensation for the loss.”
There are over 16.41 lakh voters in Junagadh constituency, of which 8.47 lakh voters are male and 7.93 lakh are women. Despite Muslims forming 16 percent of the population of Junagadh city and over 12 percent of Junagadh Parliamentary constituency – which also encompasses other Assembly constituencies of Visavadar, Mangrol, Somnath, Talala, Junagadh and Una that are part of Gir Somnath and Junagadh districts – the BJP has been winning the Junagadh Lok Sabha seat since 1991. The only time Congress won was in 2004 when BJP’s “India Shining” Campaign failed to yield results.
This time, sitting BJP MLA Rajesh Chudasama will be taking on sitting Congress MLA from Una, Punja Vansh. The first time Chudasama clashed with Congress veteran Punja Vansh was in 2014 elections when the 36-year-old BJP candidate won by a margin of 1.3 lakh votes.
Sources in the BJP who requested anonymity said that Junagadh is one of the seats that the party is worried about. “Almost 70 percent of this constituency is rural and in the 2017 polls the party ended up losing even the Somnath seat. So the party is being extra cautious this time,” a a senior party functionary said. However, the source added, “We feel that PM Modi’s recent visit and the current political discourse will help turn the tide in our favour.”
Sitting MP Rajesh Chudasama too expressed confidence that he would win the Junagadh seat. “The Congress victory two years ago is history. The mood of the people has changed. They want to not only vote for the BJP, but also want to see Narendra Modi being re-elected as the Prime Minister,” said Chudasama, speaking to The Indian Express over the phone.
“In the past five years, with the help of the Centre, we have been able to kickstart several projects in the region,” he added. “The most important of them was the Girnar ropeway project for which the foundation stone was laid way back in 2007, but the project remained stuck due to lack of environmental clearance. Now the project is just a couple of months away from completion.”
Recounting a string of projects being implemented in the region with financial help from the Centre, Chudasma said, “Farmers had agitated against the land acquisition for a highway between Jetpur and Somnath. We have given them four times the market price and now that project of Rs 200 crore is underway.”
What the BJP sees as working in its favour are precisely the things that the Congress says the voters are unhappy with. “The main issues this time will be about how BJP’s promises of 2014 have remained on paper,” Congress candidate Punja Vansh said. “Be it their promises to youth or farmers, nothing has been fulfilled. Just today (April 13) the BJP put up a hoarding of the Girnar ropeway project for which they had laid the foundation stone 15 years ago and the project remains incomplete,” he pointed out.
Asked if he believed that the people would vote him to victory, Vansh said, “People have already rejected the BJP in 2017 and that is the reason why Congress won in all the Assembly constituencies that are a part of this seat.”
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court recently stayed the bypoll to the Talala Assembly seat, after erstwhile Congress MLA Bhaga Barad challenged the Election Commission’s announcement of the bypoll within days of his disqualification from the Assembly following his conviction in a 24-year-old case of illegally mining limestone.